Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
When it comes to pop culture, you just can't get any Hero's Journey-er than Star Wars. The interesting thing about this one is—having already seen Anakin and Luke take that journey—we now see them shifting to the role of mentors: moving the journey to a new generation and placing the hero in a new role.
In any case, the "ordinary world" in Star Wars seems to involve a giant quasi-fascist government hell-bent on spoiling the party for everyone and a plucky band of rebels stepping up to stick it to the Intergalactic Man.
All we need are a couple of anonymous souls who have no idea what they're capable of…
Call to Adventure
For both Rey and Finn, the call to adventure arrives in the form of a new friend (or in Rey's case, two). Finn decides he's had enough of the First Order and springs Poe Dameron to help him steal a TIE fighter. Rey ends up with BB-8 at first, followed quickly by Finn.
In both cases, it's a sign that they need to put on their boogie shoes and split. The galaxy ain't gonna save itself, guys.
Refusal of the Call
Refusal of the call is bad news. Just ask Luke's Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru …or rather, their smoldering husks.
Both Finn and Rey refuse the call at about the same time: in Maz's place. Finn wants to keep running from the First Order and hooks up with the local riffraff to do it. Rey rejects the gift of Luke's lightsaber and insists that she has to go back to the junk heap on Jakku to wait for her family.
You know what happens next? The First Order kicks down the door and starts killing everyone. Way to go, guys.
Meeting the Mentor
Mentors…wow, we've got a lot to choose from here, and they don't always arrive in perfect Hero's Journey order. For a while, Rey and Finn are kind of on their own, making it up as they go and unable to turn to anyone for help.
The first one to arrive is Han, and like a lot of mentors, he's a little rough around the edges. Maz certainly has her share of life lessons to deliver, but our heroes don't seem hugely open to her vibe. (Besides which, she doesn't show up until the second half.) Even Kylo Ren offers to act as a mentor to Rey, though she's definitely not buying what he's selling.
They all pop in at wildly different points of the movie, and all of them after our heroes have decided that this adventure ain't gonna get going without them.
In fact, if we're being completely honest, the true arrival of the mentor comes with Luke…whom Rey spends the whole movie looking for and who literally doesn't show up until the last two minutes of the flick.
As part of a great trilogy—one story told over three films—it makes more sense. But if we're looking at The Force Awakens as a stand-alone Hero's Journey…yeah, it gets all kinds of confused.
Crossing the Threshold
In some ways, the threshold gets crossed as soon as our gang blasts out of Jakku on their way to the stars. That, of course, predates their appointment at Maz's place, where both Rey and Finn refuse the call and pay the piper.
You might argue that that's the spiritual spot for crossing the threshold, though from a chronological perspective, you have to start with Jakku.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
Enemies are pretty obvious to spot in the Star Wars universe: they wear black masks or white armor and say things like "no one can stop the First Order!" Sometimes, they're big and slimy, like those Rathtars that Han is carrying.
But speaking of Han, our gang doesn't have to face these challenges alone, not when there's a devil-may-care smuggler with a crooked grin and an awesome co-pilot around. They join BB-8 and Poe, who were already well-entrenched as sidekicks, to get them through the various challenges the Force loves throwing their way.
Approach to the Inmost Cave
Whatever stumbles the previous steps in the Hero's Journey took—refusing the call after crossing the threshold, for example—it's not hard to see where the inmost cave lies: on Starkiller Base, as the First Order prepares to wipe out the Resistance in one genocidal push of the button.
That's where Rey has to face the terrors of the dark side, Finn faces Captain Phasma for the first time since leaving, and oh, yeah, Han calls out Kylo Ren for the worst father-son chat of all time. That sounds like pretty potent inmost cave stuff to us.
Some ordeals go better than others. Case in point: Han getting offed by Kylo Ren.
But strictly speaking, Han isn't the protagonist in this story; Rey and Finn are. His death serves to remind them just how scary Ren can be…which makes it doubly disturbing since they now have to throw down with him in the forests on Starkiller Base.
Reward (Seizing the Sword)
Finn is awesome, but he's not the Special on this one. That role lies with Rey…who seizes the sword quite literally when Luke's lightsaber goes flying past Ren and into her hands.
Time to show that whiny little emo twerp whom he's messing with.
The Road Back
The road back, in this case, is actually the road forward. We know, it's confusing, so let us explain. Having awakened the potential of her own power, Rey has finally accepted that she's not doing anyone any good while hanging around on Jakku.
That sends her further forward down the road—the road everyone in this movie was trying to find—leading straight to that island where a certain one-handed Jedi waits.
We have a couple of resurrections, mostly symbolic in nature.
Rey returns from the symbolic death of her capture at the hands of Ren. Finn gets knocked unconscious, but we're informed he will be all right (and which ends with a nice platonic reversal of the classic Sleeping Beauty image as Rey gives him a kiss on the forehead).
And there's Luke, who has been living in exile since the whole snafu with Rey, but who—in a giant symbolic lowering of the hood—looks like he's ready to get back into the game.
Return With the Elixir
The formal elixir is the map to Luke, which we finally put together to lead us to that awesome closing scene.
But in truth, it's not the map so much as it is Luke himself. Leia (as the opening credits remind us) is hoping to "gain his help in restoring peace and justice to the galaxy." That makes Luke what everyone is waiting for, and while we need to wait for Episode VIII to see it, we're betting that he's going to change the game in a big way.